Last week, Haiti’s interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue began handing out checks to members of his country’s former army, a brutal military force that was disbanded in 1995. So far, more than 200 former soldiers have received checks. The money, which the renegade soldiers say is back pay that covers the past 10 years, is actually a thinly veiled blackmail payment.
Latortue agreed to dole out the checks, which are expected to total $29 million, after months of failed attempts to get the renegade soldiers to turn in their weapons. In the year since they led the rebellion that toppled the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s former soldiers have created what amounts to a shadow government. They hold sway in parts of the country that are beyond the reach of the government and the small United Nations (news – web sites) peacekeeping force that keeps it in power.
Last year’s rebellion was the second time Haitian soldiers had a hand in removing Aristide from power. Back in 1991, a military coup forced him to flee the country just months after he became Haiti’s first democratically elected president. During Aristide’s absence, Haiti’s army violently suppressed opponents of its power grab.
Aristide dumped army
Aristide cashiered the entire army after he was restored to power in 1995 – replacing it with a lightly armed national police force. The police were no match for the renegade soldier-led rebellion that swept across Haiti a year ago.
Aristide was replaced by Latortue, a Florida resident who was named interim prime minister by a Haitian “council of elders” that the Bush administration was instrumental in cobbling together. Shortly after taking office, Latortue called the rebels “freedom fighters,” even though some of their leaders are widely thought to have been part of the death squads that preyed upon Aristide’s supporters.
“It just reaffirms the corruption of the nature of puppet government,” Bill Fletcher Jr., president of TransAfrica Forum, said of the payment policy. His is a Washington-based group that monitors events in African and Caribbean nations. “Any amount of money is legitimizing their activities when every credible report indicates that these guys are running around the countryside killing people, tracking down Aristide’s supporters and driving people underground,” Fletcher said.
He makes a good point. According to Amnesty International, the rebel force is led by Guy Philippe, a former army officer who is thought to have been involved in a failed 2000 coup. Other leaders of the rebels include Louis-Jodel Chamblain and Jean Pierre Baptiste, both members of a paramilitary group that is accused of carrying out massacres and assassinations in support of the 1991 coup.
So what makes these men “freedom fighters” and deserving of compensation for lost work? They got rid of Aristide, a former Catholic priest who was widely backed by the poor to whom he once ministered. But Aristide has been reviled by the country’s elite, whose bidding the army has historically done.
In paying off the rebels, Latortue hopes to buy his government some time, if not ultimately peace. He apparently believes that once their pockets are filled with money from Haiti’s cash-strapped government, the rebels will lay down their weapons and go home.
That’s not likely to happen. Having cajoled Latortue into dipping deep into the national treasury to satisfy their demands, there’s little chance that these terrorists will be satisfied. They know that once they give up their weapons – and their control of pockets of Haiti – they will lose their leverage with Latortue’s government. Only defiance, not money, will get them to do that.
So far, the Bush administration – Latortue’s patron – has not taken a public stand on the Haitian government’s attempt to end the insurgency by throwing money at the band of thugs that ousted Aristide and now threatens to undermine his replacement. That’s too bad.
Left to his own bad decision-making, Latortue has decided to appease rather than confront Haiti’s terrorists.
DeWayne Wickham writes weekly for USA TODAY.